Interview by Angela Rodel

Ashod Derandonyan’s journey is a testament to resilience and empowerment. Having lost his hearing at two, he navigated a world devoid of inclusive policies for deaf people. His journey from facing educational barriers to being the first deaf student at the American University in Bulgaria illuminates the path of overcoming adversity. Ashod didn’t stop there; he founded the Listen Up Foundation, which is part of alliance today and spearheaded efforts leading to the historic recognition of Bulgarian Sign Language (BGSL) and the initiation of sign language academic programs. His teammate Hristina Katsipidou, who was the first Fulbright Civil Society Scholar representing the Bulgarian deaf community in the US, motivated Ashod to become the first deaf graduate degree-earning student at Gallaudet University. He shares insights from his transformative journey and vision for the future. 

What are the predominant challenges facing the Bulgarian deaf community today? 

The Bulgarian deaf community continues to face significant barriers, chiefly societal attitudes and misconceptions. A pervasive belief system still exists where deafness is seen as a defect needing correction rather than embracing sign language as our inherent mode of communication. This misconception undermines our culture and language, leading to isolation and language deprivation among deaf children. The need for widespread awareness and acceptance of BGSL as a legitimate, enriching language is critical. Furthermore, the community grapples with systemic hurdles, such as insufficient, even non-existent, bilingual education and professional opportunities despite advancements like the Bulgarian Sign Language Act adopted in 2021. Our mission extends beyond legislative victories; we aim to dismantle the deep-seated stigma and foster a society where deaf individuals are empowered, acknowledged, and integrated fully. 

Why is the official recognition of BGSL pivotal for the community? 

The formal acknowledgment of BGSL as a complete language is a monumental step towards equality and empowerment for deaf people in Bulgaria. For years, the absence of this recognition has significantly impeded educational and social integration, leaving the deaf community marginalized. By legitimizing BGSL, we pave the way for comprehensive and accessible education, high-quality interpreting services, and, crucially, the preservation and celebration of our cultural identity. The establishment of the BGSL Council at the Ministry of Education and Science marks a new era of inclusion and participation, enabling deaf individuals to contribute significantly to the development of policies and educational strategies that affect their lives directly. This recognition is not just about language; it is about affirming our dignity, rights, and potential as equal members of society. 

Can you share the highlights of your Fulbright experience and its impact on your advocacy work? 

The Fulbright experience has been profoundly transformative, offering a sanctuary of growth and belonging at Gallaudet University. Here, immersed in American Sign Language and surrounded by the deaf community, I’ve found a powerful sense of home and identity. This journey has reinforced my commitment to fostering deaf-centric educational and professional programs worldwide. The collaboration of our Bulgarian organization,, with Gallaudet’s President Roberta Cordano and the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between Gallaudet and at the end of 2023 represent significant strides towards international advocacy and empowerment. These experiences have sharpened my vision for a future where the deaf community in Bulgaria and globally thrives through education, leadership, and cultural affirmation. 

How has your perspective on deaf empowerment evolved through your studies at Gallaudet University? 

Gallaudet University has profoundly reshaped my understanding of deaf empowerment. It’s a place where the signing community flourishes, fostering a rich environment for leadership and innovation. This experience has highlighted the critical need for deaf-led initiatives and the cultivation of deaf leaders who are intimately familiar with the community’s unique challenges and strengths. Eastern Europe, and specifically Bulgaria, requires a paradigm shift towards providing deaf individuals with equal opportunities in public administration and policy-making. My time at Gallaudet has cemented my determination to ensure that deaf individuals are not only recipients of policies but active creators and leaders in shaping their futures. 

Looking forward, what new directions do you envision for your NGO,, upon your return to Bulgaria? 

Upon my return, will focus on pioneering comprehensive educational programs in BGSL Philology, developing a pool of BGSL specialists to lead the next wave of academic and social transformation. We aim to forge robust partnerships with institutions, fostering projects that bridge gaps between deaf people and hearing worlds. The ultimate goal is to cultivate a bilingual educational landscape in Bulgaria, where BGSL and Bulgarian are equally valued and where deaf individuals are empowered to achieve their fullest potential. 

Is there anything else you wish to address or any message you’d like to share with our readers? 

We look for our allies in Bulgaria and internationally to expand our Building Bridges for Deaf Leaders of Tomorrow initiative to promote and increase the number of deaf scholars and fellows over the following years, not only from Bulgaria but also from other European countries.  


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